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Students and “The Pursuit of Happiness”

On Thursday, February the 21st, Dr. Laurie Santos came to talk to the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders about the class she teaches at Yale University, called “Psychology and the Good Life” or otherwise known by her students as “The Pursuit of Happiness”. Laurie Santos graduated from Harvard in 1997 and is now a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale. She has been a TED Talk speaker and featured in many magazines such as Time and Popular Science.
Initially contacted by Ms. Kaatz, Dr. Santos came to the high school and gave two presentations, approximately each 45 min long, with a slideshow to accompany it. Juniors, seniors, and the odd sophomore piled into the auditorium either during 5th period, or at the beginning of 6th, and sat through the entire thing quietly and respectfully, something that the adults who attended remarked about. Following her talk was a period of time where students could ask her questions, and then they all went back to class.

Afterward, I got the chance to interview Ms. Kaatz about the whole event, and then went around the school and asked a few students about what they thought after hearing what Dr. Santos had to say.

Q&A with Ms. Kaatz

What problem were you seeing in the students that made you start this whole thing?
“They’re stressed out, and they come in and I can feel it. They talk about it, and I can feel it. I have a child, I see it at home as well as here at school, and a lot of high achieving students participating in activities wanna do well in school. So I believe their stress is valid, I don’t think they’re just being, I don’t know. I think it’s real, I guess that’s the best way and simplest way to say it. And so because I was seeing that, I’ve been worried about this for a while and seeing it in my own child, so I just happened to hear about [Dr. Laurie Santos] on the news, and I thought ‘oh my gosh this is exactly what we were talking about. We were also just starting that G.P.S. class and the purpose of that class was to try to give kids a time to talk. And I had my son’s class that year, and I kind of asked him ‘if you had this class would you like it would you feel like this is something that would be useful’ and they said yes. Again, their first thing was ‘where am I going to fit it in my schedule because I do this, this, and this’. And it was that same thing, the stress, all over again.”

What made you choose Dr. Laurie Santos Specifically?
“So I saw her on Lester Holt’s Nightline and they talked about the most popular class in the history of Yale, and then it started talking about how she was seeing stress in her students at Yale and so she developed the class for them. Specifically for this, so then immediately that kind of hooked me. I started listening to the things she talked about, and specifically her class which the kids called the pursuit of happiness class but that wasn’t her formal name for it, and so they had kids on there that talked about their experiences and how it was really kind of funny at first and you thought maybe it was might be helpful but you weren’t sure. And then they realized that, no, some of the things she asked them to do they really needed to do. Like one of the kids said she assigned taking time to just go and have a coffee with a friend and to not worry about what they have to do right now, just forcing themselves to take a moment, that was their homework. She would tell them ‘your homework this week is you have to go do this __, or you have to have 20 min of just doing nothing, you choose how you want it to be,’ and those types of things.”

What went into making this happen? What did you have to do?
“So, first of all, the money, the English department sells books at the beginning of the year and we always tell kids that’s a fundraiser for us. We always earmark that money for speakers or for buying other books, so we had the money and when I saw her I knew I wanted her so I emailed her. The first time I emailed her I wasn’t emailing about speaking, I was emailing about “would you share your curriculum with us, for the GPS class”. She emailed me back her entire course. And that’s kind of unheard of, especially from a college professor, because a lot of them are very ‘I made this, I put the effort into it. You can buy it or I’m not going to share it with you.’ because they just feel like it’s their material. So that kind of shocked me, that she literally emailed me everything she had done and she said: ‘I have more, it’s going to be online and your kids can actually take it online but that’s what I’m working on right now.’ And so, I emailed her again about the course, asking her questions. There were maybe 3 email exchanges of just me asking her questions and every time she was very quick to respond, very direct, basically answering any question I had. Then that’s when I got the idea, just on a whim, ‘Do you think that you would come and speak?’ And she told me, that was in the spring,’“I don’t think I can speak in the spring. Right now I’m extremely busy, now’s not a good time to ask me I’d probably say no, but if you email me this summer I won’t be right in the thick of things.’ So I did, and she said “you know what, I can make it happen. If you can have me on this date because I am going to go to Austin.’ She’s starting something, like a regular thing on Twitter which she came to interview some UT professors for, and she’s starting a whole podcast thing and they are going to be part of that. So she’s coming for that but ‘if you can have me on this day, that’s the same time that I’m coming for this anyway so I can make it happen.’ And then it was the money, she’s normally paid double or triple what we paid her. She did it, basically, out of the goodness of her heart. And to me, her sharing all of the material is about her just wanting to help people because she knows that this is a national epidemic. And that is true, they’re seeing across the nation that the suicide rate has gone up about 3% for high school teenagers.”

What did you, personally, get out of it?
“As a teacher, I really keyed in on the fact that she said we need to rethink grading and concentrate more on the learning. One day we were in here talking about our final exam. Caitlin and Essie, they were all stressed out about this essay ‘what is it? And we only have 40 minutes.’ And I said ‘It doesn’t matter’ and they kept saying ‘but it’s our grade’ and I said ‘it doesn’t matter.’ And I said ‘why doesn’t it matter?’ and one of them finally said ‘because we get to rewrite it’ and I said ‘exactly, so don’t worry about what the grade’s going to be, we’re gonna fix that. All I want you to do is do your best on the essay.’ And it took ME a long time to get there, I’m not saying I’m perfect. It took me a long time to understand what Dr. Gearing and Mr. Burns were kind of pushing. Because I was trained, and I grew up with ‘grades, grades, grades,’ and so I got out of it that all of us need to get on the same page and rethink grades.”

What do you think the students got out of it?
“I hope that the students heard her talk about how there’s more to life than grades and that they need to set limits for themselves and I’ll give you an example, my son. We’ve always said, ‘you take baseball lessons, you need to make good grades, you need to do this.’ And he just flat told us around Christmas ‘I’m not doing any baseball lessons, I’m tired. I just want to enjoy baseball. I’ve gotten to where I don’t enjoy it and, Mom, I’ve always done my best on the grades. And you usually let me alone so don’t worry, I’m going to do what I need to do.’ And so I hope that they heard that they need to be advocates for themselves.”

What are we doing, moving forward, with this idea?
“I’m hoping that she’ll come back and we can have a teacher convocation and she’ll talk to all the teachers. Then that will ideally start more conversations toward changing the way we think. I’m also hoping that our GPS classes continue to go in the right direction, it was the first year and it was kind of a stab in the dark and both the teachers of those classes feel we need to change them a little bit, we need to make them better. And I’m hoping that we continue to understand our kids are struggling.”

What are your reactions to these comments:
“I wish you could have shown my parents this because the kids are totally on board with grades don’t matter.”
“I get grounded if my grades drop below a high B so grades are important.”
“For those of us trying to get into upper tier schools, grades do matter.”
“For someone who went to Harvard and is now teaching at Yale to say this stuff, it seemed like kind of an FU to say that my high school grades don’t matter.”

Some people felt it maybe wasn’t phrased correctly, and then a lot of kids with real depression were frustrated because they were like “I have done all of these things, now what else?”
“So one of the things she said to the depression kids in the second group is ‘you get immediate help and you get intense help, and then these are things to help you maintain afterward.’”
“On the other one about the grades. One of the parts of her message was that, and I’ll use my son as an example, he’s always talked about “I want to go to Stanford. At one point he thought maybe he could get a baseball scholarship Yale. And so he wanted to go to an elite school and I didn’t understand where that was coming from. That was coming from the environment here, I think. And his friends and peers having those aspirations, so he felt he needed to to be competitive. Dr. Santos said ‘It doesn’t matter, Yale, Texas A&M, she used Texas, Texas is just as good as Yale. They’re different. You need to be happy and realize that’s a good fit for you.’ And there’s also the same exact thing in this book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell and he talks about that. That people think that they have to go to an Ivy League school, but this is what she didn’t say, there’s a study that shows kids who graduated from, I think he used Princeton and Harvard, when they get out in the workforce 5 years out, they’re just as equal as kids who went to the University of Texas. They find out, that in the end, that school did not give them an upper leg. What ended up giving them the upper leg was the individual. So I think that that’s one thing we need to think about.”
“Now they do have to have good grades and SAT scores to get into those schools, so she’s not saying ‘don’t worry about it.’ She’s saying ‘don’t let it drive everything about your life’, that’s her message. It can’t become that you’re so stressed out over those grades that you don’t have any outside activities, you don’t get outside and do something.”
“And the parent part. Mr. Burns immediately said ‘She should talk to parents. We need to do something with our parents about this.’ So that was definitely something, so maybe, if I can get Dr. Gearing on board with bringing her to convocation, we can have a parent meeting that same day and have her too, and invite the parents in and have them listen to things that are being seen. Our counselors see this stuff too, and they know a lot more than I do about the stress that’s in this school. I’m just basing it on what I see in my classroom and my kid. So, have them talk to the parents first because that tells them what’s going on here, then have her follow up.”

Is there anything else you wanted to add?
“I appreciated the kids and their attitude and how they conducted themselves during the whole presentation.”

What the students thought:

“Personally I enjoyed the speech a lot. I think that she had Great intentions with what she was saying, but I don’t agree with a lot of it. I think that those things are good for any person to try, but they will not increase your happiness at any substantial level. As a Christian woman, I believe that the only substantial way to be happy is finding Jesus. Personally, I wasn’t ever truly happy until I had a relationship with the lord and I don’t think anyone can be truly happy until they have that. Once again, I think it’s awesome that she wants people to be happy but these are only ways to increase happiness for short periods and doing them won’t make you an overall ‘happier person.’” – junior Corryn Scharff

“So I think it was helpful because it gave information on why people feel the way they do, and why they feel that way. She also showed data from different experiments that helped us understand why she thinks each of her tips would help us when it comes to happiness. Overall I think it was helpful information, but I don’t think it made much of an impact for me personally.” – senior Danielle Lebovitz

“The whole experience really spoke to me and made me realize what I need to improve on a personal level,” senior Thomas Babiak said. “I learned that my happiness should be my top priority in life, both in school and outside of it too.” – senior Thomas Babiak

“Often times while in school, it is easy to become detached or disconnected due to the extreme focus and effort that is required to be successful in school. This lecture overview has been a great reminder to me that I need to take time to clear my mind and be in the moment and enjoy life more often. True joy and success in life isn’t all a product of success but rather will more abundantly come to me from balancing all aspects of my life and focusing less on myself and more on other people.” – senior James Bartling

Written by: Giselle Galletti Editor-in-Chief and Front Cover Design

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